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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Turning the Tables: Nightlife, DJing, and the Rise of Digital DJ Technologies

  • Author(s): Levitt, Kate R.
  • Advisor(s): Mukerji, Chandra
  • et al.

DJ culture experienced a crisis as it underwent rapid changes in its tools, practices, and communities in the 2000s, a process that is still unfolding in 2015. Historically, DJing as a musical and cultural practice shifted the emphasis of recorded music playback from a one-way flow of information to a multifaceted conversation between DJ and vinyl, turntables, mixer, dancers, and the urban environment. As a consequence, the significance of the DJ was not merely the ability to weave recorded songs, but the fact that he or she connected bodies, sounds and technology in an urban ecology, creating exciting new musical experiences. However, the rapid rise of digital DJ technologies in the 2000s brought with it many new tools and formats, and economic revitalization has increasingly turned to DJ-driven nighttime entertainment. These forces have raised questions about what DJing means, who belongs in the community, and how to legitimize its practices.

This dissertation analyzes an artistic community as it navigates dramatic changes in its world, and considers the processes by which DJs contribute to, respond to, and reshape new technologies. It threads histories of nightlife’s transgressive symbolism and DJ culture’s privileging of irreverent remix into more recent controversies over what tools, techniques, and performance choices make some DJs more legitimate than others in the DJ world. Drawing from over a decade of research and participation in the DJ world, as well as dozens of interviews and observations, I examine the perspectives of those DJs who embrace new technologies as well as those who problematize the rise of digital DJing. The study offers a nuanced theorization of artistic practice and technology adoption that emphasizes the role of DJing’s history, as well as the situated ways that communities define themselves in moments of flux.

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